Slavoj Zizek: On Lacan as Philosopher

Jaques Lacan (13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981)

SŽ: Lacan was a French psychoanalytic theorist, who despised philosophy officially. For Lacan, the discourse of philosophy is of a complete worldview which fills in all of the gaps and cracks. And Lacan’s idea is that precisely what we learn in psychoanalysis is how cracks and inconsistencies are constitutive of our lives. So officially he was against philosophy, but the paradox is that Lacan was constantly in dialogue with philosophy. In his work, there are even more references to Plato and Hegel than to Freud himself.

BLVR: So even though Lacan didn’t want to define the world concretely, he was a kind of philosopher himself?

SŽ: Obviously, Lacan was playing philosophy against itself. The idea being very simply that in our experience of the reality of the world, we always stumble upon some fundamental crack, incompleteness. What appears as an obstacle, the fact that we cannot ever really know things, is for Lacan itself a positive condition of meaning. There is a kernel of philosophy here, what philosophers call ontological difference; this is this experience of a rupture as a fundamental constituent of our lives. So to cut a long story short, for Lacan (and I try to further develop this idea, based on his insight), to properly grasp what Freud was aiming at with the death drive (the fundamental libidinal stance of the human individual for self-sabotaging; the basic idea of psychoanalysis is the pursuit of unhappiness, people do everything possible not to be happy), is to read it against the background of negativity, a gap as fundamental to human subjectivity, so in other words to philosophize psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis in this way is no longer just a psychiatric science which develops a theory of how we can cure certain diseases; it’s kind of a mental and philosophical theory of the utmost radical dimensions of human beings.

BLVR: So Lacan was reading Freud’s death drive, the desire to self-destruct, as a good thing, philosophically speaking. Incompleteness and cracks, themselves being the place where difference is created.

SŽ: Exactly

– from Interview (2004) The Believer

6 thoughts on “Slavoj Zizek: On Lacan as Philosopher

  1. What is crucial in this diagram of subjectivity is that for Zizek the circularity of the drives in many ways imitates the state of organism in homeostasis or state of equilibrium. Homeostasis is a state of life when every organism struggles to gain a breathing space at the same time that Nature does not intervene for the most part. That is the tricky part of the word equilibrium: everything is equally at war. This organic struggle is equivalent to Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes which in Zizek assumes the form of evental explosion or rupture that provides a transition to normality at which point Nature starts to intervene. Normality means the rule of the death-drive. One microscopic example of homeostasis is the pre-natal state when each reproductive pair of cells tries to dominate others to gain the attention of Nature, to gain the right to belong to Nature as when a fetus is formed. In this sense, a fetus is guilty of first-rate murder by extinguishing other hopeful reproductive pairs, other reproductive pairings capable of producing a fetus. In this format, Zizek wants us to return to a pre-natal state where we can have the chance to be reborn, but also a chance to calculate which pair of cells to conjugate itself to in order to produce a better you. This is the heart of the concealed totalitarianism of Zizek. By dematerializing the fetish he wants us to return to a state of war of all against all in the name of being reborn again. But here is the trick. To be reborn again and again means to avoid ever belonging to Nature, to avoid the fetal becoming. (Ultimately, to repress the repeatability of the sexual act! Here is the most concrete expression of the Lacanian dictum “there is no sexual relation.” But also, are we not seeing in this the reason why Lacan made less emphasis on Freud? The goal might be to defeat the death-drive, to defeat Freud’s theory, or simply Freud on a psychopathological level). To avoid Nature means to avoid the death-drive as Nature alone can impose death. The trick is to not allow the death-drive to make an unwitting victim circulate around it as long as this victim lives or decides to live, hence, to keep the death-drive waiting for Godot, pining for a victim whose innocent struggle to become part of Nature blinded by conatus is finally inaugurated into the drama of being and death. This time we can laugh at death!

    Just a thought…


    • What you describe as the circularity that produces the subterfuge of homeostasis is the fantasy of ideology, pure and simple. What ideology offers is the symbolic construction of reality – the ultimate fantasy – as a way to escape the traumatic effects of the Real. Reality is always a “virtual” take on the Real; a virtualization that can never Fully overcome the Real or achieve homeostasis. I think the point for Zizek is to break out of Nature/Fate ideology, to break free of our habits, our homeostasis, to enact an ethics of the Real. Something along the lines of what Alenka Zupaneic in her Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan is doing. Or as Glyn Daly says in his primer: “The starting point here is an insistence on the unconditional autonomy of the subject; of accepting that as human beings we are ultimately responsible for our actions and being-in-the-world up to and including the construction of the capitalist system itself Far from simple norm-making or refining/reinforcing existing social protocol, an ethics of the Real tends to emerge through norm-breaking and in finding new directions that, by definition, involve traumatic changes: i.e. the Real in genuine ethical challenge. An ethics of the Real does not simply defer to the impossible (or infinite Otherness) as an unsurpassable -horizon that already marks every act as a failure, incomplete and so on. Rather, such an ethics is one that fully accepts contingency but which is nonetheless prepared to risk the impossible in the sense of breaking out of standardized positions. We might say that it is an ethics which is not only politically motivated but which also draws its strength from the political itself.”

      I would also incorporate the insights of D&G as stated in my previous post about “process”: process as the metaphysical production of the demoniacal within nature, and process as social production of desiring-machines within history.

      Between the “demoniacal within nature”, and the “desiring-machines within history” we must choose. One is fatalistic and bound to the biological tick of organic necessity, while the other is bound to the eventual movement of that rupture which entails the only change we ever need to invent something worthwhile.

      I think Frederic Jameson said it best:

      “This is the point at which we reach the most persistent of all Žižek’s fundamental themes: namely, the death wish, the Thanatos, or what he prefers to call the ‘death drive’. Modern theory is indeed haunted by Freud’s death wish, that better mousetrap which any self-respecting intellectual owes it to himself or herself to invent a theory of (Freud’s own version having satisfied nobody). But we also owe it to ourselves to retain everything that is paradoxical (or perverse) in Žižek’s (or in Lacan’s) version of the matter; for here the Thanatos has nothing to do with death at all. Its horror lies in its embodiment as life itself, sheer life, indeed, as immortality, and as a curse from which only death mercifully relieves us (all the operatic overtones of The Flying Dutchman are relevant here, all the mythic connotations of the Wandering Jew, or indeed the vampire, the undead, those condemned to live for ever). The death drive is what lives inside us by virtue of our existence as living organisms, a fate that has little enough to do with our biographical destinies or even our existential experience: the Thanatos lives through us (‘in us what is more than us’); it is our species-being; and this is why it is preferable (following the later Lacan) to call it a drive rather than a desire, and to distinguish the impossible jouissance it dangles before us from the humdrum desires and velleities we constantly invent and then either satisfy or substitute.”

      Yet, against this biological drive to death is also the symbolic drive to death, a drive to immortality: “It is crucial to conceive the notion of the death drive against the background of this “second death,” as the will to abolish the indestructible palpitation of life beyond death. … To freely embrace an imposed state of things simply means to integrate this state of things into one’s symbolic universe. … Freely willing one’s own death also signals the readiness to come to terms with one’s death on the symbolic level, to abandon the mirage of symbolic immortality.” (Zizek)

      But the futility of this could lead, and has lead some to think of Zizek as a social pessimist. This is the conviction that human subjectivity is permanently split and bears a gap within itself, a wound, an inner distance that can never be overcome: something Lacan demonstrated over and over again in an extraordinarily complex (and dialectical) articulation of the original Freudian models. But taken at this level of generality it is a view that might easily lead to social pessimism and conservatism, to a view of original sin and the incorrigibility of some permanent human nature.

      But it is against such a view that Zizek tries forestall and exclude just such a disastrous misunderstanding of the social and political consequences of the Lacanian ‘gap’ that is the task of The Parallax View. The book does so, however, not by any immediate extrapolation of the gap or constitutive distance from individual to collective; but rather by juxtaposing the theoretical consequences of split subjectivity on a variety of disciplinary levels. (Jameson)


  2. Well said, pal. Just additional points. And I beg your indulgence…

    What I argue contra Zizek is what D@G had argued against psychoanalysis. Desire is not lack but production. So, there is no argument in favor of the drives for D@G compared with Lacan and Zizek who in light of their emphasis on desire as constitutive of lack are logically led to the conclusion that only by way of a suppleance, through the object petit a, that the subject can relate to the object of Desire itself. In D@G desire is the very productive principle through which Life itself expresses its immanence. Life does not express a lack otherwise we regress into the familiar theological assumption that life is somehow designed to evolve into higher intelligence–because previous conjugations of material forces are not enough to express life’s immanence. Argued from Spinoza’s point, life is the universal unvarying substance that varies and fluctuates only in terms of local expressions but these local expressions do not reflect a lack more ancient than human freedom (well, this is Levinas already, but give and take a few points, it’s Spinoza’s much earlier diagram of subjectivity that expresses my point here). I agree that D@G prefer the desiring-machines in history over the demoniacal in nature but in Deleuze’s much later essay he affirms that: ‘The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens: a “Homo tantum” with whom everyone emphatizes and who attains a sort of beatitude. It is a haecceity no longer of individuation but of singularization: a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil, for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad. The life of such individuality fades away in favor of the singular life immanent to a man who no longer has a name, though he can be mistaken for no other…’ (Deleuze 2001:29-30). Radically put, the goal is not to make profound sense of the gap (in the sense of mastering the intricacies of the gap), the split between life and death, between nothing and being, but to accept that pure immanence, like it or not, will express itself at the detriment of being.

    Let me put this in my own rather oblique terms. The emphasis on the drives valorizes the ontological gap, whereas the emphasis on production valorizes the unvarying course of immanence. The drives are manifestations of the gap precisely because the drives are not Desire itself yet they can relate to Desire in a manner a subaltern relates to a universal. This is sound logic. But we are not after logic here. What we are after is to make sense of how despite the unvarying essence of life, localizations are possible, possible in the sense that they can effectively obscure pure immanence as pure space which nonetheless can be folded (which is exactly how subjects ratioanalize their existence, existence being a local expression). We rationalize our existence by deciding to fold a space (the pre-existing void-space) in order to create time (the voiding of the void) and by creating time we create our selves as subjects (as voided singularities of space). Owing to this capacity for enfoldment, we learn that everything is a passage, everything is in transit, that is to say, for us. In this sense time is birthed by the subject for it is only a subject that can make time an issue for being (as Heidegger said). But because we are in transit, we ourselves are part of the passage of time as we create it, we become oblivious of the fact that time itself is in transit, that time will one day be overwhelmed by immanence which is ultimately non-human, non-temporal, because it is without time, without origin, etc. (Climate entropy is one indication of this pure immanence recovering the plane of human composition).

    Deleuze would say that this pure immanence is neutral. We can extend this neutral sense to the Spinozist assumption that it is pure conatus whose nonhuman origin is not (naturally) designed for higher intelligence like us to know. There is however ‘something’ to rationalize which explains why we are trapped in time. Here, I would suggest that Deleuze wished to go beyond the discourse of time owing to its self-entrapment. In the same manner, Deleuze did not problematize the drives as they are temporally bound, that is to say, too human in their orientations. Lastly, we mean ‘too human’ in the sense of subject-orientation which, in Lacan as it is in Zizek, is not for everyone to possess. The subject is supposed to be ‘the one who knows’–who precisely knows because he has already achieved an exit from time, from self-forgetfulness, from the everyday localization of human existence in which the subject who (now) knows was once its constituent, from the kind of entrapment into time of those incapable of achieving the power of this orientation, namely, the power of knowing that there is nothing to know, that there is only the being that speaks about something to know. The emphasis is no longer on episteme, rather on performance. The one who knows is the subject that has escaped the circularity of the drives, so to speak. Well, Socrates knew it. The way to achieve a subject for oneself is to know ‘nothing’. But the rest are made to believe that there is a lot out there, that there is more in ‘being’. Perhaps, this explains how drives can be manipulated by the subject you know who. (Practically, D@G’s Anti-Oedipus makes a lengthy argument against the drives).


    • Well said… and, yes, this is the great dividing line in the sand between the two camps! hahah! I’ve come to see it as more temperament as to which path one follows, and into which camp one ultimately situates one’s journey. Of course we might ask: do we choose the journey or does it choose us? And, of course, by journey we mean – the philosophical journey.

      “Drives,” D&G write in Anti-Oedipus, are simply the desiring-machines themselves” (AO 35). Moreover, like Nietzsche, Deleuze insists that the drives never exist in a free and unbound state, nor are they ever merely individual; they are always arranged and assembled by the social formation in which we find ourselves, and one of the aims of Anti-Oedipus is to construct a typology of social formations—primitive territorial societies, States, capitalism, and, later, in A Thousand Plateaus, nomadic war machines—each of which organizes and assembles the drives and impulses in different ways. Of course, I’m sure you know this better than I do… 🙂

      Deleuze takes up Kant’s model of desire, but modifies it in two fundamental ways. First, if desire is productive or causal, then its product is itself real (and not illusory or noumenal): the entire socio-political field, Deleuze argues, must be seen as the historically determined product of desire. Second, to maintain this claim, Deleuze formulates an entirely new theory of “Ideas.” In Kant, the postulates of practical reason are found in the transcendent Ideas of God, World, and the Soul, which are themselves derived from the types of judgment of relation (categorical, hypothethical, disjunctive). In response, Deleuze, in the first chapters of Anti-Oedipus, formulates a purely immanent theory of Ideas, in which desire is constituted by a set of constituting passive syntheses (connective, disjunctive, conjunctive).1

      Daniel W. Smith. Deleuze and the Question of Desire. (Parrhesia)


  3. Pingback: Impossible Object(s) & Other Speculations from Dark Ecologies | Senselogi©

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